There’s still time to get your hands on the brand new Moffat Bingo cards.
‘The Crimson Horror’ marks the return of Victoriana, the Paternoster gang, and that gnawing sense that Mark Gatiss may be the most hit-and-miss Doctor Who writer since Chris Chibnall. You may remember that I really loved ‘Cold War’. I thought it was fan-pleasing without being introvertedly self-referential, action packed without being over the top, and in a setting that felt historically real enough that the cracks in the likelihood of eccentric Soviet professors knowing much about English electro-pop bands didn’t really matter too much.
This certainly isn’t to suggest that ‘Crimson Horror’ approaches the levels of ‘Fear Her’ or the inaccurately named World War Two shocker, ‘Victory of the Daleks’, in being a bad episode. Quite the opposite in fact; I found it hugely enjoyable, even on a second viewing. It’s simply uneven in a way that many of his episodes seem to be.
Even ‘Cold War’ is filled with extraneous scenes and characters that detract from the overall plot. For every excellent scene – and there are quite a few – there’s a follow-on that destroys all the narrative tension and pacing.
An example; Strax is lost and blames his horse. He pulls a gun on it, asks for its final words and responds to its whinnying with “the usual story”. It’s a great little moment that doesn’t necessarily add much to the overall direction of the episode, but tells us lots about Strax as a character; he’s an outsider who doesn’t quite understand Victorian England or human culture, his first instinct is to resort to violence when things go wrong and he serves the dual functions of warrior, Butler and comedy sidekick.
It’s immediately followed by a street urchin giving directions in the manner of a SatNav. The punchline? His name is Thomas Thomas, or TomTom.
Now, I am certainly not going to suggest that there’s no place for shoehorning in a good pun if you’ve got one, but I don’t think this is quite it. Beyond the fact that it’s an unreasonably dreadful joke, it completely takes the viewer out of the story.
It adds nothing to character or plot. It sails by with an air of embarrassment and there’s no reason for it to do anything but. Strax isn’t going to react, he has no reason to find that amusing, it’s not the set-up to anything but an in-joke to the viewers, a few of whom may remember that they have SatNavs of their own, in the 21st Century, which the episode is supposed to be removing them from to conjure a sense of Victorian England. Otherwise, they may as well just wander around with mobiles and rocket packs for all the care made to present a realistic historical context.
These moments, or ones like it, pop up again and again. They’re small but they detract from the bigger picture and that really bothers me, especially when the episode as a whole is better than that.
An aspect of Doctor Who that’s rarely spoken about, and certainly a topic that I don’t think I have ever had cause to notice before, is costume design, but this episode deserves some credit for what is an excellent dress on Clara. It helps that it’s essentially a Victorian, female version of the modern Hawkeye costume, an outfit that is one of the best designed in contemporary comics, and for that I will love anything.
Unfortunately, this outfit is about the only thing that Clara has going for her. None of the writers seem to have a clue how to deal with her, as the ongoing mystery of her identity leaves her without any other defining characteristics. In fairness, there are flashes of lovely stuff in there; her reaction to “you’re the boss” reminds me of the promise of her character as a lively antidote to the Doctors awkwardness in ‘The Bells of St John’. Likewise, her and the Doctor’s playing husband and wife to infiltrate Sweetville were joyful. Ultimately though, she spent most of the episode frozen in a glass bottle, a role which sadly seems to be absolutely in keeping with her casting, as nobody seems to be able to tell me why I should care about her other than that she’s attractive.
In sharp contrast to Clara is Jenny, who manages to exhibit some of the skills that actually make a character in an adventure serial interesting; breaking and entering, bribery and the ability to strip down to a leather catsuit and punch badguys. All of which makes me more aware of how much more I would prefer the Paternoster gang to be the regular companions.
Even by the standards of Doctor Who, a series that features episodes in which the Daleks mutated people into pigs and the Cybermen built a giant version of themselves to stomp around London in, this is a bonkers plot. Quite why Mr Sweet wants the planet reduced to a population of a few hundred (a situation that almost certainly means the extinction of humanity) if he’s essentially parasitic is the least of the problems, as is the issue of quite where the money to finance Sweetville came from if all the mill produces is noise, corpses and brainwashed followers.
The bit that everyone is supposed to focus on is the wonderful acting by the baddie, who this week is Diana Rigg, playing an old woman with a model Pokemon attached to her chest. As villains go this could have been lacklustre had they not decided to go full Bond villain with her characterisation, as she goes from unethical businesswoman, to religious zealot, to frothing lunatic planning her own backyard apocalypse.
Once again we have the problem of slightly too many characters. An episode featuring the Doctor, Clara, Vastra, Jenny, Strax, one-and-a-half villains, the daughter of the villain and various side characters like ‘man who faints’ and ‘cheerfully creepy mortuary attendant’ is one that is overly stuffed, and it tells. There’s almost too much going on, and it leaves Clara pushed out altogether.
It’s stuff like this that leaves ‘The Crimson Horror’ feeling a little bit flat. It’s more like a Chibnall episode; bits that are great, mixed in with some stuff that makes no sense at all. And I guess that’s probably what I could ultimately say about this series so far – great promise, strange execution.